“Don’t dim your light. Don’t be afraid of the light that you see in yourself” Leading Ladies Africa Meets Lisa Nichols

All over the world Lisa Nichols is regarded as a Motivational Speaker, Writer, Author, Mom and a woman whose life is dedicated to the service of people. Lisa runs- Motivating the Masses, a digital platform aimed at inspiring and motivating people to become better versions of themselves through carefully curated content. She has also authored several books, has spoken on so many international platforms and through her itinerant speaking career, has inspired thousands of women and men worldwide. Today, she uncovers layers of herself we hardly see on social media highlighting her battle with self-esteem and more.

It is an absolute honor to have you on LLA.  All over the world you are known either as Lisa “the writer” or Lisa “the speaker”. Can you introduce us to the Lisa Nichols most people don’t know?

The part of Lisa Nichols that no one knows… I am awkwardly shy at public events – social, casual events that I’m not working at. 

I’ve grown to realize that cooking is a therapy for me. I’m not a “foodie”, I’m a “feedie”. I like to cook large amounts of food and then invite people over. I enjoy watching them eat my food. I buy way too many groceries on an ongoing basis just to be ready! Lastly, I primarily flirt with men over 70 and under 13. Everyone in between that, I get nervous and awkward around.

Watching your videos closely, one thing that shines through is the passion with which you deliver your speeches and how very important it is for you to ensure that beyond communicating to your audience, you are speaking to the needs they have in varying seasons of their life. What is your story and how has the numerous experiences and key defining moments shaped you?

 I was raised in a household that was relationship rich and financially limited. My family, extending all the way up to my grandmother and my parents, always emphasized the stock put into relationships. 

I struggled through school academically. It was difficult for me to learn. I worked really hard to get a C, an average grade. C+ was my highest grade in school. I found out in my twenties that I was a functioning dyslexic, and that was the reason why learning was difficult for me. I was committed to school, but it was not easy. 

Sports were my saving grace. Sports kept me on the beaten path and kept me under a watchful eye during the dangerous times, like right after school before our parents got home, when so many things could happen. Sports were an outlet for me. It was a safe haven for me. It was something that I and my parents saw as a way to live in a community, but not be consumed by the community.

I struggled with my self-esteem. I was a dark, brown skinned girl with full lips and round hips and kinky hair, and that was not the beauty standard of America. It caused me to question my value, my beauty, my worth. That low self esteem led me to look for validation in the arms of men and relationships, which caused me to have emotionally draining and even devastating experiences. When love was promised through intimacy I believed it and it didn’t materialize, and I found myself feeling used, betrayed, frustrated. 

So in my twenties, I struggled a lot because I had a very mature body, a very athletic body, but I had a crushed heart. I had low self-esteem. I was confused. And so in my early thirties, I found myself putting on an emotional jacket, which was over 85 pounds of weight, which I wore for almost nineteen years, until I was emotionally ready to release the weight and take the jacket off. 

I went to a college for a year and a half before I got kicked out for inability to pay. I went to college in Oregon and I was one of four black girls, one of eighteen black students. That was where I experienced racism at a very prevalent level, with cat feces being put in front of my door, the words “black bitch go home”, a bucket of water being poured over my head. 

When I went to college my only wonders and worries were, “Can I pass this class?” and “What track am I going to run this weekend?” But when I left college, after experiencing all of the racism and the ignorance and the limiting beliefs, I wanted to be a part of educating people. I wanted to be a part of bridging the gap. I wanted to be a part of melting the wall down that no young person, whatever age, should walk into a space ready to learn and grow and connect and be greeted with such ignorance. I chose not to stay angry at racism but to understand and take ownership of where racism comes from. It comes from ignorance and lack of knowledge. So I felt like I went to college with one set of intentions and came home with another. 

It would be years before I even knew how to live out what I knew I wanted at nineteen. I knew I wanted to bridge gaps. I wanted to educate, to empower. I wanted to make people feel better about themselves. At nineteen I knew I wanted to do that. I didn’t have the courage to say it out loud until I was thirty. I didn’t know how to make it a real business until I was forty. 

Another life changing experience was finding myself engaged to be married, five months from my wedding day, when my then fiance choked me until I passed out, and three days later he picked me up and threw me across the room. In that fight for my life, I realized how much I had to live for. It was in that moment when my life felt really threatened that I was willing to accept that there’s a purpose on my life and I was willing to do whatever, no matter what, to navigate this dangerous terrain right in front of me, and to make my life matter. 

Maya Angelou said, “Like dust, I’ll rise”. I believe that when you rise out of hardship, trials, and tribulation, you don’t rise the same way. The person that went in that trial, that tragedy, that circumstance, cannot be the same person that comes out. Someone new emerges. Those are life changing moments. 

The final life changing moment was at age twenty-five when I was sitting at my grandmother Bernice’s funeral. My grandmother was a single mother of eight children. She was a nurse and she weighed maybe 110 pounds if she put rocks in her pockets. There I was at her funeral watching the legacy of an earth angel, a change agent. She was a gladiator, but the quietest, most humble gladiator. I watched people come from miles and miles away. I expected there to be a good hundred and fifty people at her funeral. Over 500 people showed up and every one of them said they had lived with her at one time, or that they had fed her out of their pots. I decided at twenty-five that I wanted my funeral to be laced with stories like that. Stories of service, of compassion, of endless love, of bottomless pots. I knew at twenty-five as I watched my grandmother’s home going ceremony, how I wanted to be remembered. It became clear. It was life changing for me. I often replay in my head the exact things that people said at her funeral as a way by which to create my map. What kind of person do you have to be to have that kind of impact? If I can live my life and have 10% of the impact my grandmother did, it will have been a good one.

20’s are arguably the most formative years of one’s life. Can you share some choices you took in your twenties that you are most grateful?

I made the decision to start reading. I had already made it out of school and I didn’t have to read anymore. Remember, I found out in my twenties that I’m dyslexic. But I chose to read and that decision changed my life. I became so committed to transforming my life that I was willing to live with the discomfort that I had to go through to get there. I became so committed to my transformation, to my breakthroughs, to becoming the woman people kept telling me I had the potential to be. I didn’t want to have the potential to become her anymore. I wanted to be her, so much so that I was willing to walk into my discomfort and my inconvenience to get there.

Your itinerant speaking career has given you exposure to different women from different parts of the world. Based on your interaction with these women, what would you say is the greatest thing holding women back from blooming and how would you advise they navigate the murky waters of discovering themselves?

The number one thing that’s holding women back from blooming is that we give to others, to the detriment of ourselves. We don’t check our barometer to see when we need to keep the energy for ourselves. We’re so committed to service and giving that we give away what we need. We give away our own oxygen. We give away the time we need. We give away the rest, the brilliance, the support we need.

We give away the food on our own plate while we’re hungry. Sowe live a sacrificial life and serve others to the detriment of ourselves. And we know better. We’re brilliant. It’s just our innate response to put everyone else in front of us. We need to condition ourselves to understand that there can be a line of people for us to serve, as long as we remain at the front of the line.

There is a myth that public figures do not have true friendships. Does that apply to you? How have you been able to retain friendships?

I think that public figures have strained relationships because they belong to two groups of people. They belong to their private friendships and they belong to the public, and those are two intense relationships happening simultaneously. 

There’s a saying, “The loudest mouth gets fed”, and the public is the loudest. The private relationship is in the background while the public relationship is screaming so loud.  It’s like a baby crying to be fed, but it never gets full. So it’s not for lack of interest, and it’s not in many cases due to the dysfunction of the celebrity, though being a celebrity can create some very dysfunctional patterns. 

How do I keep my friendships true? First of all, not all of my friendships have survived my journey to success. Let me be very transparent – when I speak about my friendships now, I speak from lessons learned. I speak from a very high cost of not knowing that my public brand will suck all the oxygen out of my relationships if I don’t find a whole separate island for them to live on. They have to live separately because beside one another, they’re not equal. One is more important to me while the other is more consuming of me. 

I’ve learned not to let myself use the excuse of being busy or public as a reason to not nurture a friendship. That’s number one, that no matter how big I play in the world, there’s no level of ginormous that supersedes friendship. 

Number two, I don’t justify my absence. I don’t give reasons why I didn’t call or why we didn’t see each other. 

And number three, I stay extremely mindful that I’ve never wanted to be in the valley of a low point all by myself, nor do I want to be on a mountain top of success and grandness all by myself. I’m very mindful that there’s a group of God appointed individuals that were placed in my life to be on this journey with me, and it is my honor that they are in my life. It’s my honor that they would be so loving to embrace me and all my imperfections, and the demands on my life, and share me with a world. I belonged to them first and then I belong to the public, and I walk with that knowing. I don’t ever have to announce it. I don’t ever have to say anything about it. I’m grateful that my son lends me to the world. I’m grateful that my parents lend me to everyone else. I’m grateful that my cousins and my friends share me with millions of people. 

Was mentoring a part of your journey? Can you list five women you consider mentor figures?

Absolutely, mentoring was a part of my journey. I consider myself an eclectic piece of work in that I am a combination of many, many women who have poured into me and helped to shape me into the woman I am today. What’s unique about the mentors in my life is that most people don’t know them. I chose extraordinary women that many would call “ordinary women”, who simply made extraordinary decisions on a daily basis, thus giving them an extraordinary experience. I wanted to have women like that pour into me because I never wanted to learn how to be a celebrity. My aspirations weren’t to learn how to be a brand or to be wealthy.

My aspiration was to take my ordinary life and make it an extraordinary life through my decisions, and to be able to share wealth because of it, whether it’s intellectual wealth, emotional wealth, or financial wealth. My mentors include Pamela Loving, Margaret Packer, Susie Carder, Bernice Nichols, Blanche Houston.

Lisa, you do so many things and you give off yourself – in huge doses too to several people out there. How have you been able to thrive as a mom? Can you share 3 parenting tips that has helped you on your journey?

One key thing I did as a mother was choosing to not operate under the context that my choice was either being a great mom to Jelani or building a great career of service. I didn’t live in “either/or”, so I didn’t ever have to choose between the two. I chose them both.

I knew from a very early stage that it wasn’t fair to my son to put my dreams on hold until he was an adult. Because I would unconsciously blame him and he never asked for that. I recommend that you don’t put your dreams on hold because you are a parent, because your child wasn’t born for you to put your dreams on hold. 

We don’t live in an “either/or” world. We live in an “and” world. Strategize, work it out. I was never willing to use the excuse that it was hard. If it’s hard building your dream as a parent, it’s harder putting your dream on hold for 20 years. I would much rather figure out what’s hard and do it, than make it harder by watching people live their lives while I’m on the sidelines because I’m a parent. 

I was extremely creative. I didn’t play inside the box as a mom. As a matter of fact, I erased the lines of the box. I relinquished myself of the fear of other people’s perception of me. I knew I was a good mom. I could always be better, but I was a good mom. So I built a unique experience for my son and I. 

My son, Jelani, didn’t want me to go anywhere without him, that he couldn’t call and talk to me, and we didn’t have cell phones at the time. So the first time I went to Africa I notified my son’s principal that he was coming with me and I wanted him to distance learn for those 20 days. The reply was, “We don’t have such a program”, and my response was, “I’m happy to help you create one”. And we did.

I created a six page “Jelani Care Guide” that included everything from his favorite foods, to his favorite cartoons, to his favorite blanket, to his homework assignments, to what he was doing in sports. Whoever was watching Jelani got the care guide and so did his teacher, so did his grandparents regardless if they were watching him or not. Everyone that was remotely in our village, in our community, knew everything about what was going on with Jelani. So he would get phone calls from friends saying things like, “Hey, I hear you’ve got a science project coming up. How’s it going?” He felt like he had a village and I made myself one of the many people in that village. I wasn’t the entire village. 

In the village was my dad, who Jelani cooked so much with while I was on the road that he decided to become a chef. In the village was my mother, who would play the Pokemongame with him. That was their thing. In the village was my brother, who taught him how to garden and how to have respect for the outdoors. The village was a prominent, prevalent village. I didn’t slack on my role, but I didn’t try to be every role.

So the advice I would give is to:

  1. Create a life plan for you and your child that includes your life.
  2. Give up guilt. Guilt is a toxic, unhealthy engagement.
  3. Suffering is optional. Build your child to coexist inside what you’re creating. Let them participate in it. Let them play with it and be a part of it.
  4. Bring them up in a village where you’re not the only one, where it doesn’t begin and end with you. Expand the village. It’s not just your household. Let other people play a part. Be clear and set healthy boundaries. My son knew when I needed mommy time. And I allocated 90 minutes a day where I did nothing else but be present to him, play games with him, cook with him. Ninety minutes every day. That filled up his tank substantially, so when I was gone for four days or five days, he didn’t question it.

If you could speak to your younger self, what would you say? 

High heels are gonna hurt in years to come go so quit wearing all those stilettos. Wear some wedges. Wear some tennis shoes! 

I would say, fall madly in love with you first, and spend less time trying to get him to fall madly in love with you. The rest will take care of itself. 

I would tell my younger self to quit hiding out. Quit hiding out in humor. Quit hiding out with the weight gain. Quit hiding out by saying yes to other people because you want them to like you. Don’t dim your light. Don’t be afraid of the light that you see in yourself. Don’t be afraid of it for you, and don’t be afraid of what other people might think when they see it. 

What does success and fulfillment mean to you? 

It means living a life of no regrets. Success to me is looking back when I’m 90. Looking back when, when I’m my grandmother’s age. She turns 90 this year. Looking back and owning every single one of my decisions with great joy.  Success to me is when I’m in my rocking chair and I’m not getting up and moving a lot, that I’ve got some of the best memories on the planet to sit with.

Success to me is the statement that follows the phrase, “Here lies a woman who…”. Success is the things I’ll never hear because I will have transitioned. Success to me is everything that inspires somebody that I have never even met. Success is a legacy that makes women and men want to be better people. 

Pizza or chocolates?

Five years ago, I would’ve said pizza all day long, but then I discovered milk chocolate with almonds! In the spirit of living in abundance, I’m going to say pizza with extra pepperoni and pineapple on it, and milk chocolate with almonds. And then a treadmill! 

What is your greatest pet peeve? 

People who use an opportunity to serve others as a moment of self promotion. People who are positioned to pour into the lives of others, and yet they use that time to tell us how great they are, and bring little to no value to the space. And when a man leaves the toilet seat up.

What three books are on your re-read list?

Intellectual Foreplay by Eve Hogan, Becoming by Michelle Obama, and Reposition Yourself by TD Jakes.

Three fashion must haves?

Eyelashes, a nice lipstick that makes you feel sexy, and a body shaper when necessary.

Two celebrities you would love to hang out with for 24 hours?

Michelle Obama and Will Smith. I love WIllSmith. I’m fascinated by him. 

What is your advice to that woman who is crippled by limiting beliefs and doubts? 

Your life is a physical manifestation of the conversation that’s going on in your head. Of course there are some circumstances that you can’t control, but there are so many that you can. You can change how you see them, how they impact you. Your mind is the very first place that your life experiences are formed. And you don’t have to forget your experiences. People say, “Forgive and forget”. I don’t forget. I just don’t let the remembering hinder my growth, my love, my choices. 

And I would tell her to acknowledge that we all can only take ourselves so far. I am a better woman today because I’ve got people ten to twenty steps ahead of me and I read their books. I attended their workshops. I listened to them. Have someone pouring into you that has grasped that part of their life further than you have. Our pride stops us from learning. Don’t let your pride, your ego, or your shame get in the way of the woman you’re becoming. 

The woman you’re becoming is on the inside of you knocking to get out. She doesn’t have to have all the answers. Your job is to midwife the woman you’re becoming on a daily basis. Help birth her. Give her life. Give her oxygen. Give her coaching. Give her mentors. Give her opportunities. 

And embrace falling. Because if you can’t embrace falling, you’ll never embrace flying. That doesn’t mean that you plan to fall, but embrace it. Your bounce back muscles have always been good. It’s in your DNA, so embrace falling. When you embrace falling you embrace flying.

The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.

It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa; an initiative that seeks to effectively mentor and inspire women, with particular emphasis on the African continent.

Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to lead@leadingladiesafrica.org and we just might feature her.

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